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Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2009

Milwaukee’s Pita Brothers Finds Street-Level Success

Battery-electric vehicle offers meals on the go

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When brothers Manoj and Vijay Swearingen considered opening their own restaurant, they found the price of the endeavor to be more than they were willing to invest. So they scaled down their food service concept and added some wheels. Now known as the Pita Brothers, their storefront is a low-speed, street legal, 100% battery-electric vehicle built by Global Electric Motorcars, allowing the brothers to bill their business as “Wisconsin’s first electric foodie vendor.”

 The Pita Brothers’ eco-vending vehicle was manufactured standard in Fargo, N.D., and then All A Cart Manufacturing, a company that has been designing and manufacturing custom mobile vending vehicles since 1972, tricked it out. For the Pita Brothers, the company constructed a self-contained mobile kitchen of high-grade stainless steel complete with LP gas grill, refrigeration, interior lights and a generator.

 Ask a developer the three most important factors in determining the success of a restaurant and she’ll say, “Location, location, location.” The Pita Brothers transcend the theory by simply parking their restaurant wherever they find the demand. In addition to serving breakfast Downtown in front of Chase Bank and dinner on Marquette’s campus at 16th and Wells streets, the brothers do the bulk of their business at lunchtime in the Third Ward. They operate near Catalano Square, an area the brothers say under-served the neighborhood work force and Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design students looking for a quick bite to eat. Instead of having to wait—to be seated; to place a drink order, then a food order; for the food to be cooked and delivered; for the check, for change, etc.—customers of Pita Brothers walk up to the brightly lit counter, order from a mounted display and watch as the brothers work in tandem to prepare their meal. The time it takes from placing the order to begin eating it averages a whopping three minutes.

 The portability of the wraps prepared by the Pita Brothers coordinates nicely with the mobility of the food stand. While the brothers are able to oblige most orders, the staple ingredients are chicken, steak, bacon and homemade falafel. These can be jazzed up with a selection of dressings like buttermilk ranch, creamy Caesar, sweet barbecue and a rich tahini sauce. Customers can add fresh toppings like lettuce, hummus, tomato and feta at no extra cost. It’s the authentic Lebanese flatbread—the cornerstone that Vijay searched the nation for—that pulls it all together in a tight, transportable take-away. There’s a small but select offering of drinks, chips, cookies and smoothies to turn it into an entire meal.

 To make the most of what they’ve learned operating a viable mobile food business, the Swearingen brothers created Motovend LLC, a business that offers services like vehicle design consultation, operational guidance, and Web site, logo and menu design to entrepreneurs interested in operating a similar outdoor venture. With luck, these fledgling food cart enthusiasts will absorb some of the Pita Brothers’ street-level success.

 Pita Brothers can be found on Twitter and Facebook, as well as at www.pitabrothers.com.